An ear in a city of tough struggle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am


As the secretary general of a psychological counselling hotline that offers its services free to the public, particularly to disadvantaged groups in Shenzhen, Zhang Yuewu has worked closely with people struggling through tough times. The hotline has fielded more than 10,000 calls since the Shenzhen Public Emotional Care Centre was founded three years ago, and a large number of callers suffer from serious problems, including depression, which can lead to suicidal tendencies. Zhang talks about his experience with the centre and analyses reasons why migrants, for instance, often suffer from higher suicide rates and engage in a larger number of extramarital affairs, which can result in desperate attempts to reach out to others, even strangers.

When and why did the centre launch the hotline?

The hotline was founded by [Xu Jingan,] a retired Shenzhen official, and began operating in April 2009 with only one psychological consultant after we noticed that there were very few channels through which the public, especially disadvantaged groups, could air their emotional problems. Now we have 24 certified psychological consultants, all volunteers, who are willing to spend half a day every week at the centre providing free consulting to callers. From Monday to Saturday, four volunteers take day or evening shifts from 9am to 10pm.

We have received subsidies from Shenzhen's Civil Affairs Bureau every year, enabling us to pay volunteers a small travel allowance of just 80 yuan (HK$98) per shift. Donations from local enterprises are another main source of income.

What kind of psychological problems are callers facing?

About 40 per cent of the roughly 10,000 callers have been dealing with family conflicts, 27 per cent called about relationship problems, and the rest have generally concerned workplace problems, industrial disputes, interpersonal relationships, pressure on their livelihoods, gaps between their expectations and reality, and many other problems. Among the family conflicts, 35 per cent of calls are attributed to extramarital affairs.

Why is the percentage of extramarital affairs so high?

Migrant workers who live in Shenzhen have a high rate of extramarital affairs because many of them are forced to live separately from their partners, as their low salaries are not enough to pay for their families to move to Shenzhen. Many cases of extramarital affairs we have handled involve low-income assembly-line workers who live on the outskirts of Shenzhen and whose wives live in small villages.

The tolerance for extramarital affairs in a fast-paced society, and the desire to live a life of pleasure, have also contributed to this phenomenon.

How many callers have tried to commit suicide?

At least 22 callers have had detailed plans to commit suicide, and another 71 people have thought about committing suicide or murder. It's very common for assembly-line workers to develop psychological problems when they don't have regular social interactions outside the workplace.

A young migrant worker turned to us with a detailed suicide plan that she formed after spending eight years, since she was 17, working on assembly lines that subjected her to round-the-clock military-style treatment and discipline, in workshops and dormitories. She was so frustrated that everything was done in terms of cost-effectiveness, rather than how it affected workers, and her life was completely empty outside her struggle to support herself. We invited her to have a face-to-face consultation at our centre several times.

A huge number of migrant workers who rely on scant salaries from factory work face similar dilemmas as that young woman, and they can't afford expensive psychological counselling. We have visited many Taiwanese manufacturers that adopted strict management styles, and we have urged entrepreneurs to take employees' emotional needs into consideration, by showing respect for them in the workplace, as well as being understanding, encouraging and communicative.

A security guard talked about wanting to murder strangers to vent his anger after his wife was forced by indifferent passengers, on a long-haul coach bound for Shenzhen [from Henan ], to abandon the body of her two-year-old daughter, who died on the trip from a heart problem, because they did not want to travel with the corpse for 20 hours. The woman, who did not want to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere, was forced to leave the girl's body, but later suffered a breakdown. Meanwhile, the family was left with huge debt from treating the daughter's illness, because of insufficient social benefits for migrant workers.

Society has long focused on pursuing economic growth while ignoring workers' basic human rights and not respecting them or granting them social equality. Very few social resources have been dedicated to them. Enterprises, authorities, the system and the public are all responsible for the high suicide rate of migrant workers.

In order to respond to emergencies more efficiently, we analyse and review individual cases every month, as well as co-operate with researchers from universities.

Why do migrants born in the 1980s and '90s face more psychological problems than their parents?

Their parents' generation had a clear understanding that the city wasn't their destination, but rather a stop to make some money. They worked hard and saved money for simple things, such as building a new home or starting a small business back in their village. That's why very few of them committed suicide, even though they worked tirelessly for meagre salaries.

But the younger generation feels differently, as they are more willing to settle down and try to make cities their homes. They want more than a job. They want to create an identity for themselves in society, and it can be very frustrating when the reality turns out to be so different from their expectations.